We’re all scared of something – spiders, heights or speaking in public. Much of the advice about dealing with fears revolves around challenging and debunking your thoughts: is what you’re thinking actually true, what’s the worst that could happen and how realistic are those chances?
But what if you’re afraid of something that is actually likely to happen? Even worse, what if your fears are really coming true?
When you’re diagnosed with chronic illness, you might experience scary symptoms. Depending on your condition, you may struggle to breathe normally, feel your heart pounding in your head and chest, or suddenly loose the sensation in your arms or legs. Medical treatments can also be very daunting, from becoming claustrophobic in an MRI scanner to feeling stressed about a lumbar puncture or undergoing surgery of any kind.
And unlike treating phobias by gradually exposing you to scarier levels of your fear, there’s often little time to mentally prepare yourself for symptoms that pop up unexpectedly or urgent medical procedures.
What’s more, worries you have about the future can also become a reality. Maybe you will never be able to walk again. Maybe you’ll never be able to carry or care for your own baby. Or perhaps you struggle with the knowledge that without your insulin pump/inhaler/pacemaker you could get life-threatening complications or may even die.
How do you cope with these legitimate fears and health scares?
Sadly, there’s no one-size-fits-all answer to dealing with fearful health-related situations. So much depends on your unique situation and coping style. But hopefully this will give you a place to start when you don’t know what to do when your health fears are coming true.
How to Cope with Health-Related Fears
One important note before we dive in: None of the tips below can fix your health. Exploring ways to better cope with your fears and distress also does not take away the reality and severity of your problems. You have every right to be scared and worried when you’re dealing with frightening symptoms, invasive medical procedures and a bleak or uncertain future ahead. The following advice is simply meant to help you ease the acute panic and rollercoaster of emotions, never to dismiss your feelings.
With that in mind, take a look how you can manage acute fears, long-term worries and all those moments in between.
1. When You’re in Acute Distress
Do you often experience scary symptoms that come out of nowhere? Or does your chronic illness sometimes require urgent medical treatments?
If that’s the case, obviously the first step is to get (medical) help immediately. But while you’re waiting for the medications to kick in or during tests and treatments, how can you deal with the panic and fear running through your body?
Relax your body.
That’s a lot easier said than done when you’re totally stressed out – and for good reason – I know. But slowing down your breathing is one the simplest and quickest ways to reduce your body’s stress response. So let it all out with a deep sigh. Do not force your inhale, but focus on making your exhales a little longer. Every time you breathe out, try to let go of tension in your muscles: let your shoulders fall, lower your clenched jaws and feel more room in your chest.
If your breathing feels under control, you could even try to do the 4-7-8 breathing technique to further reduce anxiety and stress. It’s simple: you inhale for 4 counts, hold your breath for 7 counts and finally exhale during 8 counts. Of course, only do this when it’s medically safe and possible.
Calm your mind.
Unfortunately, panicky thoughts will only raise your heart beat, constrict your breathing and tense your muscles even more. Of course you’re not to blame if you do freak out – you’re in a health crisis after all – this is just to explain why it can help to calm your mind. Here are some things you can do to ease your mental distress:
- Repeat a soothing phrase, like “I can do this“, “I am safe” or “You’ll be ok”. This gives your mind something hopeful to cling onto and not get sucked into playing out worst-case scenarios.
- Visualize a relaxing scene. Imagine you’re on a beach or in the woods, picture yourself lying in your loved one’s arms or think back of beautiful memories. Anything that warms your heart and relaxes your body. Check out more tips on how you can do a visualization.
- Play mind games to distract yourself. Most of the time, there are no electronic devices to take your mind off your pain and fears in urgent situations, so you’re left to your own thoughts. To reduce – or at least not worsen – your fears, see if you can name an animal for each letter of the alphabet or take an imaginary walk through your favorite amusement park, city block or nature area. You can find more mind games to play here.
And most of all, remember that courage is not about having no fears, but facing those feelings and acting in spite of it.
“Courage is not the absence of fear, but the triumph over it.” – Nelson Mandela
2. When You Lie Awake at Night Worrying
When the things you fear will or could be happening in the near future, that gives you a little more time to come to terms with them and find ways to cope with your fears. But it also gives you room to lie awake at night worrying. You may be scared of a specific event, like your upcoming surgery, but also more general fears, like ‘when will the next asthma attack happen?’ or ‘what will it feel like to have a pacemaker?’
It’s completely normal to worry about these things. Life is scary sometimes, and a healthy dose of worrying can actually help you to come up with problem-solving strategies when you’re faced with health scares. But you don’t want fear to consume you, so let’s take a look how you can ease your anxiety.
Understand your personal need for information.
Knowledge is power. Seeking information about your diagnosis, treatment options and prognosis can give back a sense of control, which in turn has a positive effect on both preoperative fear and your recovery.
However, every person has their own need for information. While some patients actively seek information, other prefer to avoid it. Learning too much details can actually arouse fear, so try to determine how much you want to know during each stage of your illness and communicate that to your doctors and loved ones. It’s pretty distressing to get unwanted statistics or warnings from your well-meaning mother or neighbor when you’re trying hard to stay calm.
Sometimes it can also help to identify and voice your specific fear. For example, in the case of medical procedures, are you scared of not knowing what will happen during the procedure? Did you have a bad experience in the past that triggers fear now or do you worry about the outcome of the treatments, like how you’ll look after a mastectomy?
By zooming in on what’s scaring you the most, you can take the right action, whether that’s getting informed on how your surgery will go or asking for emotional support afterwards.
Practice with different relaxation strategies.
Chances are, you will feel somewhat stressed on the day of your examination/ the start of your treatment/ getting important test results. That’s why it’s helpful to have some relaxation strategies at hand to calm your nerves.
Breathing exercises and mindfulness can be done wherever and whenever you need them. You can perform a relaxing body scan, quietly recite some comforting or empowering mantras to yourself or visualize a soothing scenario without anyone noticing. If your anxiety makes it hard to focus, download some guided mediations for in the hospital. Mastering a few mental tricks before scary procedures will make it much easier to lower your stress levels on the day itself.
Surround yourself with support.
Humans are social creatures, so it’s no wonder that having a support system leads to better coping skills; less stress, anxiety and depression; and higher levels of wellbeing. Studies have shown that holding hands with someone you love during stressful events lowers your heart rate, blood pressure and cortisol levels. What’s more, simply looking at a photo of family and friends can ease pain. That’s pretty amazing, right?
So if you can and want to, bring your partner, parent or best friend to important appointments, or check out other ways to rally the troops to get the emotional or practical support you need.
Try to rebuild some trust in yourself.
It is such a scary thought to know you could have a seizure, hypo or heart attack at any time. Those experiences can make you feel vulnerable, helpless and afraid to be alone. No wonder you fear if or when it could happen again, and how badly it might affects you then.
That makes total sense, but you don’t want to feel powerless all the time or become emotionally dependent on others. So try to come up with ideas how you might regain some trust in your body and your ability to handle whatever comes your way. Informing yourself and the people in your life how to act in case of an emergency, getting a medical alert system, stocking your purse with the medication you could need are all ways to remind yourself you can deal with this situation, even if you’re scared. Like Bob Marley famously said: “You never know how strong you are until being strong is the only choice you have.”
3. When You’re Scared What the Future Will Bring
When chronic illness turns your life upside down, you naturally worry about what the future will hold. Will I ever get better? Will I be able to have a baby despite my endometriosis? What will happen if my diabetes leads to complications? Will my partner still love me if my MS progresses?
How do you deal with such life-changing fears? Sadly, there’s no simple answer to this question, but here are some small tips to start with.
Take it one step at a time.
No one can predict the future, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Although thinking about how you could handle potential problems on your path can definitely be constructive, you don’t want to lose yourself in ‘What if…’ scenarios. Especially because the things you fear may not even come true. Every body is unique, so you might not experience all the symptoms listed or your illness will not progress in the way or timeframe that doctors anticipated.
What’s more, you can’t fully understand what it will feel like to, for example, live with an ostomy bag until it actually happens. It may feel scary and embarrassing at first, until you discover how much freedom and improved wellbeing it also gives you.
So don’t look too far ahead into the future, but take things one step at a time.
Learn to accept your new reality – slowly.
Accepting your chronic illness is a process that takes time – lots of time. It doesn’t have a clear ending, and emotions can stir up again when you enter a new phase of life. You need time to grieve all the things you can no longer do and learn who you are now.
But it is possible to grow through what you go through and write a new story for yourself and your life. On your own or with a little help, with a smile on your face or tears in your eyes: remind yourself that you will get through this.
Explore new possibilities and other options.
After grieving what you’ve lost and slowly coming to terms with your new reality, you will feel space in your head and heart again to come up with out-of-the-box solutions for your problems or create a new meaningful vision for your future. That may see impossible now, but with a little creativity, you can still pursue your goals and dreams – even if the journey or destination looks different than you had hoped.
How do you deal with health scares? What helps you when your fears are actually coming true?
If you struggle to deal with health-related anxiety on your own, check out these free online therapy options and mental health platforms for support.